Divrei Torah Blogs

Vayera 5767

Binding_isaac Today we read one of the most troubling passages in the Torah.  To a parent, it is surely one of the scariest verses in the entire Torah.

God said “Take now your son, your only son, which you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.”

The Koran, the sacred scripture of the Muslims, has a very similar verse: Abraham says to his son, "O my son! I have seen in a vision that I offer you in sacrifice."

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have a tradition which says that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son – and Abraham said “OK.”  In both the Torah and the Koran, we find out that this is just a test: at the last minute God stays Abraham’s hand, and a ram is offered in his place.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims in their different ways have all glorified Abraham’s passing of this test.

Most Jews are familiar with the story of Hannah and her seven sons.  We often tell the story in a way that blends elements from the way it is told in 2 Maccabees with the way it is told in the Talmud tractate Gittin.  Seven sons are brought before the king, one at a time.  Each one in his turn is commanded to eat pork, or worship an idol; each one in his turn refuses, even after being tortured.  Each is murdered in a brutal and gruesome fashion.  When her last and youngest son is about to be murdered, Hannah kisses him and whispers, "Say to Father Abraham, ‘Do not pride yourself on having built an altar and offered up your son Isaac. Our mother built seven altars and offered up seven sons in one day. Yours was only a test, but hers was real.’”

Christians see in the story of the binding of Isaac a parallel to the story of Jesus.  Just as Abraham did not withhold his only son, Christians believe God did not withhold His only son.  On the second Sunday of Lent, Catholics read a selection from our Torah portion for this week – the story of the binding of Isaac, AND they read a passage from the New Testament, Romans chapter 8, which says “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.”

Jews and Christians have a long history of celebrating martyrs, people who gave their lives rather their betray their faiths.  On Yom Kippur we have a whole Martyrology service, celebrating those who died for the sake of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name.  Many Christian saints, like Joan of Arc, were celebrated martyrs.

There are many Jews and Christians in the world today who continue to be persecuted for refusing to give up their religion, and there are a few who are martyred, such as Daniel Pearl, usually without being given any choice about it, because of their religious beliefs.

But the glorification of martyrdom, and more than martyrdom the willingness to sacrifice one’s children for God, is today nowhere more in evidence than among the Muslims.  In response to an Israeli artillery round that went astray and killed 19 civilians in Gaza, the military wing of Hamas has vowed to call off the cease-fire with Israel.  Of course, one could question what kind of cease-fire it is, given that Hamas people have been shooting Kassam rockets into Israel and they captured a soldier last summer, which led to the Israeli army going back into Gaza.  The difference is Hamas is now threatening to resume suicide bomber attacks in Israel; so Israel is on a state of high alert.

There are Palestinians that make Abraham, willing to sacrifice one son, sound like a light weight.  "I’m prepared to sacrifice my six children," said Mahmoud Sumara’s mother, Halima. "I’m serious. I don’t mind if I lose them if that brings back al-Aqsa…"

There are even some who make Hannah and her willingness to sacrifice seven sons look like someone of little faith:  "I am happy that he [my 13-year-old son] has been martyred. I will sacrifice all my sons and daughters (12 in all) to Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem."

Is this the message that we are supposed to take from the binding of Isaac?  That if we are people of faith, we are supposed to be not only willing, but eager to sacrifice our children?

Is there something in the way the story is told in the Koran that causes Muslims to view sacrificing their children in a more positive light?

Let’s look at the two versions of the story, and see what lessons we might learn.

In the Torah, the story begins with God’s command to Abraham that he should offer Isaac as a burnt offering.  Abraham takes Isaac and goes to the designated mountain with all the appropriate equipment: fire, wood, a knife.  Isaac still does not appear to know what’s going on.  When they set out to climb the mountain Isaac asks, in what I always imagine to be an innocent and almost plaintive voice, “Avi, my father!  Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham tells him, “don’t worry, God Himself will provide the lamb for the offering.”  Yet when they get there, the Torah tells us “Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” 

Most of us cannot imagine what must have been going through Abraham’s mind.  We spend so much of our time, energy, and prayers on protecting our children from any kind of harm.  Now to stand there with a knife in hand ready to undo all that, to destroy that which is most precious to us?  Unimaginable.

Fortunately, just in the nick of time, an angel of God appears and stays Abraham’s hand, and tells him not to harm the lad at all—“for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withheld your son, your only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns.”

The way the story is told in the Koran is a little bit different.  In chapter 37 we are told that Abraham was granted the good news of a forbearing son – the name of the son is not given.  “Then, when (the son) reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said: "O my son! I have seen in a vision that I offer you in sacrifice: now see what is your view!" (The son) said: "O my father! Do as you are commanded: you will find me, if Allah so wills, one of the steadfast!" So when they had both submitted (to Allah), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), We called out to him "O Abraham! … "You have already fulfilled the vision!" – thus indeed do We reward those who do right.”

The Koran does not actually specify which son Abraham was prepared to slaughter; most Muslims believe the “forbearing son” is Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs, and they claim that Jews changed the story to make it Isaac because we are descended from him.  A much smaller number of Muslims believe it was Isaac who was the son Abraham was prepared to offer. 

One modern North American Muslim scholar, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna Institute says that either point of view is a valid opinion.  Which son it was is irrelevant to the message of the story, however.  Whichever son it was, Isaac or Ishmael, Abraham was clearly ready to sacrifice him to God.  Is this our role model?  Is this what we are supposed to learn?  That we should be ready to sacrifice our children, or, chalila, God, forbid, that we should actually sacrifice them?

I think not.  Abraham lived surrounded by a culture where people actually did sa
crifice their children to the gods.  The idol worshipers believed if they wanted fertility they had to share of their fertility with the gods.  So a number of their children were put through fire to the god Molech on a regular basis. It would not have been a novelty to say that what God wanted was that we should be willing to sacrifice our sons.  It would not have been such a noteworthy act for Abraham to sacrifice his son.  Lots of people in the neighborhood did that.

No what was the chiddush, what was the novelty, in this story is that God stops Abraham’s hand.  The real test of faith was not being willing to sacrifice his son – it was being willing to NOT sacrifice his son.  Abraham’s test was that he needed to put the knife down when the angel told him stop – that was where he really needed to have faith.

When Abraham was ready to plunge the knife into Isaac, the angel appeared and told him אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר  don’t send your hand against the boy —   וְאַל-תַּעַש לוֹ מְאוּמָה
— and don’t do ANYTHING to him.  There is a midrash which tells us Abraham was so prepared to do God’s will to sacrifice Isaac that when the angel told him no, he was confused – he now had one command to kill him, and one command not to kill him.  So he was ready to nick him a little, to give him a little cut at least, draw a little blood lest the whole episode turn out to be for nothing—so the angel told him no, don’t touch the boy at all!  The great act of faith on Abraham’s part was accepting that this is what God was actually telling him – no, DON’T sacrifice your son.

If we read the version of the story told in the Koran, the message is if anything even clearer.  In the version told in the Torah, Abraham doesn’t consult with the boy – he just ties him up and puts him on the altar.  Later Jewish tradition says Isaac went along with the program willingly, because he was either 17 or 37 years old, and in any event could have overpowered Abraham.  The Koran, however, explicitly says Abraham asked the son “what is your view?”  Abraham asked should I follow through on this vision and offer you as a sacrifice?  The Koran makes it a matter for the child to choose, not for the parent to choose.  And just as in the Torah, Abraham’s hand is stayed at the last moment, and he is assured that he has passed the test, and will be rewarded.  Again, passing the test means NOT actually sacrificing your son.  Passing the test means getting the message that God does NOT want the child harmed.

One Muslim interpretation, from the Lahore Ahmadiyya movement of Pakistan, says “This event also taught that human sacrifice was a wrongful practice. This practice prevailed very widely in the ancient world among most nations. Indeed, it continued among certain Hindu castes till modern times and had to be banned by law. Usually, a child was sacrificed physically in the belief that the offering would please certain gods.

But the Quran presented the true concept of sacrifice. It is that God does not need anything from man. The Quran says:  “He (God) feeds and is not fed” (6:14), and “I (God) desire no sustenance from them, nor do I desire that they should feed Me (51:57).” Similarly, the Muslim scholar Akbar Ahmed of American University once summarized the story of the near sacrifice by saying that, as problematic as the story is, in the end the most important thing was that the boy wasn’t killed. “Compassion, compassion, compassion,” Ahmed said.

Which makes the recent news out of Israel all the more distressing.  Compassion, and respect for human life, seems to be in short supply.  The Torah tells us that preserving lives is the most important value in the Torah.  We are taught that human life is precious, that the value of a life is infinite.  Yet in another “mistake” which is all too common 19 Palestinians in the Gaza town of Beit Hanun were killed by an errant Israeli shell.

I believe absolutely that Israel has a right to defend herself.  God willing, 8 months from now my family and I are going to be living in Israel, and I definitely want the Israeli government to do everything possible to keep us safe and to stop terrorists.  But shooting artillery shells in the vicinity of populated neighborhoods is a stupid idea.  How many new terrorists were created by that blast which killed 18 members of one family?

Hamas, of course, uses the incident as an excuse to stir up more trouble.  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports Khaled Mashal, the leader of the military wing of Hamas living in exile in Damascus, called a press conference calling for revenge.  Mashal is commanding the continuation of the jihad, until the last drop of blood.  Of course, he will not hear the Israeli artillery shells landing close to him, or the screams of the Palestinians who are hit by IDF fire. The leader in exile called upon the international community to establish a war crimes court that will investigate the killing in Beit Hanun. Which, Haaretz points out, is “an interesting demand, coming from the mouth of a man who approved, inter alia, the terror attacks at the Dolphinarium and the Park Hotel.”

And we have Jews who call out for revenge as well.  A website memorial to the Jewish terrorist, Baruch Goldstein, sites psalm 58: “"The righteous man shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance. He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked." 

I imagine God as furious about what is happening in the Middle East.  “Don’t you get it!” I imagine God yelling at us.  “I don’t want you guys to kill each other, I don’t want you to sacrifice your children, and I don’t want you to sacrifice other people’s children!  I want you to live in peace!”

We may feel helpless sitting here thousands of miles away from the center of all this conflict, but there are things we can do.  We can each be an ambassador for peace.  We can each try, in whatever ways we can, to reach out to people of different faiths and backgrounds.  Jews building bridges with Muslims is especially important.  We can provide financial support to organizations like Seeds of Peace which brings together outstanding Jewish and Arab kids who are likely to become leaders in their countries.

Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe, please bring us all under your shelter of peace.  May Your children in the Middle East learn the lesson at the heart of this week’s Torah reading: you
do not require us to sacrifice our children, never did, never will.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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